‘A Christmas Ghost-Story’

South of the Line, inland from far Durban,
A mouldering soldier lies – your countryman.
Awry and doubled up are his gray bones,
And on the breeze his puzzled phantom moans
Nightly to clear Canopus: ‘I would know
By whom and when the All-Earth-gladdening Law
Of peace, brought in by that Man Crucified,
Was ruled to be inept, and set aside?
And what of logic or of truth appears
In tacking “Anno Domini” to the years?
Near twenty-hundred liveried thus have hied,
But tarries yet the Cause for which He died.’

– Thomas Hardy, Christmas 1899

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The Easter Story – Then and Now (a sermon for Easter Sunday)

Can you imagine for a moment what it felt like to be in the shoes of the followers of Jesus – Peter and John and James and Mary Magdalene and the rest – on the evening of Good Friday?

They had all come to believe that Jesus was the Messiah – the King like David – the one God was going to send to Israel, the one who would drive out the Romans and the corrupt Jewish leaders and set up God’s kingdom of justice and peace on earth. The old prophecies had said that the Messiah would defeat his enemies through the power of God, and so they had followed Jesus confidently, knowing that when they got to Jerusalem there would be a showdown, and that he would be victorious.

But something had gone horribly wrong with the plan. Jesus had not defeated his enemies; he had been crucified by them. This was not something they had been expecting. In fact, in their minds, this could only mean one thing: they had been wrong about him. He was not the true Messiah after all! They had wasted the last three years of their lives on an imposter. The best thing for them to do was to keep their heads down in the city until the dust settled, and then slip off quietly back to Galilee, resume their lives, and chalk this one up to experience. And so they hid behind locked doors in the upper room, biding their time.

But then the stories began to come in.

Some of the women went to the tomb early on the Sunday morning to finish the job of anointing the body of Jesus (which the arrival of the Sabbath had interrupted). Tombs in those days were not like graves today – they were family affairs, usually caves in which the bodies were kept until they had decayed and all that was left were bones. Then the bones would be collected and placed in an ossuary, and that particular place in the tomb would be available for another family member when it was needed. That’s why John’s gospel specifies that this was a ‘new tomb in which no one had ever been laid’ (19:41), made available to Jesus by a rich man who had been one of his secret followers.

But as we read in our gospel this morning, when the women reached the tomb they got a shock; the huge stone across the entrance had been rolled away, and when they looked in, they saw that the body was gone. So they ran to the place where the disciples were hiding and told them about it. In John’s gospel we read that Peter and John decided to investigate; they ran back to the garden, and one of the women, Mary Magdalene, followed them. Peter and John found everything as Mary had said – the body gone, the linen cloths lying where it had been, with the turban for the head lying a little way away, neatly folded. Puzzled, not knowing what was going on, but beginning to hope, Peter and John slipped away.

But John’s gospel tells us that Mary stayed at the tomb, and so she became the first person to actually see Jesus alive after his resurrection. I want to point out to you that if a fiction writer in first century Jerusalem had been making this story up, there are two details he would definitely have left out. First, in the culture of that day women were considered to be unreliable witnesses; their evidence was inadmissible in a court of law. So if you were making this story up and wanting to convince people that it was true, you definitely wouldn’t have a woman as the first witness of Jesus’ resurrection. Secondly, you definitely wouldn’t include a story about how sometimes people didn’t recognize Jesus at first; you would want to get across the idea that there was absolutely no doubt about his identity.

The gospel writers, however, were not quite so creative with the truth as some modern skeptical scholars would have us believe. They tell us that a woman was the first witness of the resurrection because they knew that that is, in fact, what happened. And they also tell us that when she first saw the risen Jesus, she didn’t recognize him right away. She wasn’t alone in that. There was something very mysterious about the appearance of the risen Lord, and people didn’t always grasp right at the beginning that it was him. This was the story that the witnesses remembered, and because they were honest, they told the truth.

So Jesus appeared first of all to Mary by the tomb early on Easter morning. Later in the afternoon two followers of Jesus were walking from Jerusalem to the village of Emmaus, seven miles away; they were talking sadly about what had happened, but then a stranger came and joined them as they walked along the road. He asked them what they were talking about, and out came the whole story. “How dull you are!” the stranger said: “Don’t you know the scriptures predicted this?” And he proceeded to give them a guided tour through all the prophecies and explained how they had been fulfilled in Jesus.

Eventually they reached their destination and invited him in for a meal. There he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and gave it to them, and their eyes were opened and they realized it had been Jesus all the time. He vanished from their sight, but they ran all the way back to Jerusalem, went to the upper room and told the disciples “We’ve seen him!” The others said, “Yes, we know – he’s appeared to Peter as well!” – a meeting we know nothing about beyond the fact that it happened some time during the day. But as they were talking together, to their amazement Jesus appeared among them. They were afraid, and some found it hard to believe, but when he invited them to touch him and asked them for something to eat, they realized it was true.

And so it continued for the next six weeks. Sometimes Jesus appeared to individuals, sometimes to groups; at one time, to a group of more than five hundred of his followers. Sometimes the appearances were in Jerusalem, sometimes back in Galilee. Sometimes people recognized him right away, at other times it took longer. It was wild and unpredictable and scary and exciting; the disciples knew that God’s power had broken into their world as never before. The story of Jesus wasn’t over after all: in fact, it had only just begun!

If it’s true, what difference does it make for you and me?

Well, the early Christians believed it meant that God had made Jesus the true Lord of all. We read about that in our first reading this morning. When Peter was sharing the Gospel with the household of Cornelius the Roman soldier, he began by saying,

“You know the message (God) sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ – he is Lord of all” (Acts 10:36).

‘Lord of all’ in the time of Jesus was a title that already had an owner – Caesar, the Roman emperor. It was one of his official titles. But the early Christians were impudent enough to steal it from Caesar and give it to their carpenter rabbi from Nazareth. And they liked to quote a verse from the book of Psalms and apply it to Jesus. It says:

The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool” (Psalm 110:1).

Peter quotes that verse in a sermon he preaches in the second chapter of Acts:

“This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you both see and hear. For David did not ascend into the heavens, but he himself says,

‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet”’.

Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified” (Acts 2:32-36).

Now it might seem strange to us, at the end of a week in which we’ve seen fresh examples of the evil power of human beings to inflict murder and terror on one another – it might seem strange to us at a time like this to assert that Jesus Christ is Lord of all. And of course the early Christians weren’t blind to this reality. By the time the Book of Acts was written many of the early apostles had given their lives for the cause of Christ. Most of them had not been supernaturally delivered, either. They were well aware that the powers and authorities continued to rebel against the rule of God. But in the face of this fact they continued to assert two things.

First, they continued to assert the Lordship of Jesus. But they remembered that when he had walked the earth he had refused to exercise that Lordship by force. He had told his disciples to love their enemies, pray for those who hated them, turn the other cheek, and not return evil for evil. And then, on the Cross, he put his own teaching into practice. As they nailed the spikes into his wrists and feet, he prayed, ‘Father, forgive them; they don’t know what they are doing’.

So the early Christians expected that if they followed Jesus as Lord, they would suffer for their loyalty to him. This wasn’t a strange thing to them. This is what happens when the love of God invades a world dominated by the forces of greed and power. Jesus himself had foretold it. He said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34). When Jesus spoke those words, ‘taking up your cross’ meant being executed by the Romans as a threat to the state. Jesus warned his followers that this would happen to them, and so they weren’t surprised.

But the second thing the early Christians continued to assert was that in the long run, everyone would be answerable to Jesus, God’s anointed king. Less than forty years after the death of Jesus, Paul said,

‘Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father’ (Philippians 2:9-11).

In other words, the one who will have the last word is not Caesar, it’s not the dark and shadowy leaders of terrorist organizations or the kings of multinational corporations. All of the powers and authorities of this world will on day have to give account to the one God has appointed both Lord and Messiah. As we say over and over again in the Nicene Creed – so often, perhaps, that we don’t notice it – ‘He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end’.

So the resurrection means that God has made Jesus Lord of all, and in the end, everyone will be answerable to him – which is good news, because he is a just and merciful lord, not a cruel tyrant. But there’s one more thing we need to say about what the resurrection means to us: it means that Jesus is on the loose.

They tried to nail Jesus down, but they couldn’t do it. Love is stronger than death. The power of God is stronger than all the hatred of human beings. And the risen Jesus has not abandoned us; he is still at work in the lives of people who follow him.

But you can’t summon him up like a genie in a bottle. He’s not under our control, so that we can produce him like a conjuror’s trick. When we read the stories of the risen Jesus in the gospels and the Book of Acts, it’s quite clear that no one really knew when he was going to show up. People could call on his name, but they could not make him answer. He was the one who was going to take the initiative. He was the one who would decide what he was going to do.

And the same is true today. Some people tell stories of dramatic experiences of the risen Lord, but most of us come to know him in quieter ways. He promised his followers that after his resurrection he would be present to them in a new way – by giving them the Holy Spirit of God to come into their hearts as the living presence of God in their lives. That experience – the inner presence of the Holy Spirit – is the way that most of us Christians today come to know the risen Jesus. That’s what Peter was talking about in the sermon I quoted from earlier on, when he said,

“Being therefore exalted to the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, (Jesus) has poured out this that you both see and hear” (Acts 2:33).

Please don’t think that because it is quiet and less tangible than a bodily resurrection, the presence of the Holy Spirit is somehow less real. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is the testimony of Christians that the presence of the Spirit is one of the most real things we experience in our lives. We hear his voice speaking to us in the Scriptures and in our hearts. We sense his guidance in those gentle ‘nudges’ that we follow sometimes, and find that he’s got things for us to do. We sense his presence when we gather with sisters and brothers to worship God. When we do the work of sharing the good news of Jesus with others, we usually discover that he’s been there before us, working in their hearts and arousing an interest in the person of Jesus. And when he asks us to do things we expected to find impossible, we find instead that there’s a strength greater than our own, helping us to do more than we thought we could.

Jesus is alive. He gives us his Holy Spirit. We can’t control him or pin him down. He goes ahead of us, surprising us and delighting us, challenging us, and leading us to do the will of the Father. In other words, the story that began on that first Easter morning is not over. It continues to this day. God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus who we crucified, and one day every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that he is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. Amen.

This Joyful Eastertide

This is my favourite Easter hymn. A joyful Easter, everyone! Christ is Risen!

 

This joyful Eastertide,
away with care and sorrow!
My Love, the Crucified,
hath sprung to life this morrow.
Had Christ, that once was slain,
ne’er burst his three-day prison,
our faith had been in vain;
but now is Christ arisen,
arisen, arisen, arisen.

Death’s flood hath lost its chill,
since Jesus crossed the river:
Lover of souls, from ill
my passing soul deliver.
Had Christ, that once was slain,
ne’er burst his three-day prison,
our faith had been in vain;
but now is Christ arisen,
arisen, arisen, arisen.

My flesh in hope shall rest,
and for a season slumber,
till trump from east to west
shall wake the dead in number.
Had Christ, that once was slain,
ne’er burst his three-day prison,
our faith had been in vain;
but now is Christ arisen,
arisen, arisen, arisen.

Words: George R. Woodward (1848-1934), 1894

Music: Vruechten (This Joyful Eastertide) (Dutch melody from David’s Psalmen, Amsterdam, 1685, arranged Charles Wood, 1866-1926)

 

Smite a Rock

Good Friday
Christina Rossetti

Am I a stone, and not a sheep,
That I can stand, O Christ, beneath Thy cross,
To number drop by drop Thy blood’s slow loss,
And yet not weep?

Not so those women loved
Who with exceeding grief lamented Thee;
Not so fallen Peter weeping bitterly;
Not so the thief was moved;

Not so the Sun and Moon
Which hid their faces in a starless sky,
A horror of great darkness at broad noon –
I, only I.

Yet give not o’er,
But seek Thy sheep, true Shepherd of the flock;
Greater than Moses, turn and look once more
And smite a rock.

The God Who Suffers with Us (a sermon for Good Friday)

The Jewish writer Elie Wiesel has written a powerful book called Night, in which he tells the story of his childhood experiences in the Nazi death camps of Auschwitz, Buna and Buchenwald. He was not quite sixteen in the spring of 1944 when the Gestapo arrived to deport all Jews from his little town in Rumania. On arrival at Auschwitz, the men and women were segregated and Elie never saw his mother or sister again. In the book, he describes in harrowing detail the sufferings of the inmates at the camp. Perhaps the most awful experience of all was when the guards first tortured and then hanged a young boy. Just before the hanging Elie heard someone behind him whisper “Where is God? Where is he?” Thousands of prisoners were forced to watch the hanging (it took the boy half an hour to die). Then they were compelled to march past, looking the dead boy full in the face. Behind him Elie heard the same voice asking “Where is God now?”

It was experiences like these that led a group of learned Jews in Buchenwald to put God on trial for neglecting his chosen people. Witnesses were produced for both the prosecution and defence, but the case for the prosecution was overwhelming. The judges were rabbis. They found the accused guilty, and they solemnly condemned him.

Seventy years later these questions about God and suffering have not gone away. Today many people in the world live in enormous suffering.

Some of this suffering is inflicted by human beings on each other. The most recent example, of course, is the savage brutality of the ISIS fighters in Iraq and Syria; we’ve all seen the stories of merciless killings and beheadings, torture and rape and all sorts of atrocities. But this is just the latest case of our inhumanity to each other; the last thirty years have given us many more. All too often, the response has been more violence: people killed by the so-called ‘armies of freedom’ in bombings and military campaigns intended to stop people being killed by tyrants and dictators. But at the end of the day, people are just as dead.

Some suffering we inflict on ourselves. For instance, those who choose to drive too fast endanger their own lives – and, unfortunately, the lives of others as well. Those who abuse alcohol and other drugs cause themselves all kinds of suffering.

But there is a huge pool of human suffering which seems to be completely outside our control. We think of the earthquakes and other natural disasters in recent years, and the millions of lives that have been devastated. We think of the deaths each year from cancer and other deadly diseases. We think of children born with conditions like cystic fibrosis, condemned to short lives full of pain and suffering. And we’ve only skimmed the surface of the enormous ocean of suffering in the world today.

To thinking Christians, this fact of human suffering is the most difficult challenge to the truth of the Christian faith. You’ve heard the question many times, I’m sure: ‘If there is a loving God, then why are these things allowed to happen?’ Some of the most talented thinkers and writers in Christian history have struggled with this question, including in our own day C.S. Lewis and Philip Yancey.

I’m not going to attempt to give a comprehensive Christian view on this subject, but I do want to point out to you today that the story of Good Friday is very relevant to this question. On Good Friday, as the Apostles’ Creed says, Jesus ‘suffered under Pontius Pilate’. And if, as Christians believe, God has come among us as one of us in Jesus, then this changes our view of how God relates to us in our suffering.

Let’s explore that thought for a few minutes. Some religious traditions have a strong doctrine of a god who is totally removed from the sufferings of the world. On this view, God is devoid of emotion and untouched by pain and grief. Some of the Greek philosophers took this view. Their reasoning was that if we can make God sad, then in fact we can control God, and this can’t be true. And it has to be said that some people today take great comfort in this idea that God is far above all the dirt and pain of the world, unaffected by it in the light and peace of heaven.

Other religious traditions have seen suffering as a punishment sent by God because of human sin. The idea might be that suffering in general is a punishment for the sinfulness of humanity as a whole. Or it might be that particular cases of suffering are seen as punishments against specific individuals because of their sins. This idea is very common today. You still hear people say, “What have I done to deserve this?” The assumption behind that question is that bad things are sent to us by God as a punishment for our sins.

Some people have abandoned faith in God altogether. They cannot believe in a God who stays safely in heaven and refuses to do anything about all this suffering. This view is sometimes called ‘Protest atheism’.

But the Christian faith has a different angle on this. As I mentioned, it flows from our belief in the Incarnation – the idea that in Jesus, God has become a human being and lived and died as one of us. If this is true, then God is not far removed from the sufferings of the world. In fact, God has firsthand experience of suffering.

Let’s think for a moment of the many and varied sufferings Jesus experienced in his lifetime. There was doubt from the beginning about who his real father was, and sometimes this fact was thrown at him as an insult by his enemies. As an infant he was the target of Herod’s death squads and had to run to Egypt as a refugee with his family. He grew up in a working class family and no doubt experienced the same economic pressures we all go through. He seems to have lost his earthly father, Joseph, at a very young age, and so he was no stranger to the pain of bereavement. He was misunderstood by his family, who even accused him of being out of his mind. He went through hunger, thirst, tiredness, and homelessness. He was betrayed by a friend, subjected to a mock trial, stripped, flogged and nailed to a cross where he died one of the cruelest deaths human beings have ever devised.

This death on the Cross was the height of God’s identification with us in our suffering. Crucifixion was a terrible form of death. The fact that the sufferer was suspended by the arms would force the rib cage open and make it very difficult to breathe; in fact, the only way to do so would be to push oneself up on the nail through one’s feet, and it is easy to imagine the unspeakable agony this would cause. Eventually the sufferer would be too weak to do this, and then death would come, not so much from loss of blood as from asphyxiation.

But not only was there the physical pain, excruciating as it was. It went further than that. Like us, Jesus also experienced a sense of the absence of his heavenly Father in his sufferings. As far as we can tell from the gospels, Jesus had never felt this before, but on the Cross we hear him crying out in anguish, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” So even in our sense of abandonment by God we are not alone; Jesus has tasted that experience too.

No, the suffering of Jesus on the Cross does not explain human suffering. But it does reveal God as willing and able to allow himself to be subjected to all the pain and suffering that his creation experiences. And this knowledge that God has firsthand experience of human suffering can be an incredible comfort to us.

Some of you may have read Joni Eareckson’s books telling of the work God has done in her life since the day in 1967 when she broke her neck in a diving accident at the age of seventeen. She has been a quadriplegic ever since. For the first few months she was in the depths of despair and was often tempted to abandon her faith or even to attempt suicide. But she was not even able to kill herself, because she was immobilised in a Stryker frame with no control over any of her bodily functions. Then one day it occurred to her that Jesus knew exactly how she felt. After all, when he was nailed to the Cross he also lived in constant pain and lost the ability to move. This realisation was a turning point in her attitude toward what had happened to her.

Many years ago I came across a little story called The Long Silence. In this story, at the end of time billions of people were scattered on a great plain before God’s throne. Most shrank back from the brilliant light before them. But some groups near the front talked heatedly – not with cringing shame, but with belligerence.

“Can God judge us? How can he know about suffering?” snapped an angry young woman. She ripped open a sleeve to reveal a tattooed number from a concentration camp. “We endured terror, beatings, torture and death!” In another group a black boy lowered his collar. “What about this?” he demanded, showing an ugly rope burn. “Lynched, for no other crime but being black”. In another crowd, a pregnant schoolgirl with sullen eyes. “Why should I suffer?” she murmured. “It wasn’t my fault”.

Far across the plain there were hundreds of such groups. Each had a complaint against God for the evil and suffering he permitted in his world. How lucky God was to live in heaven where all was sweetness and light. Where there was no weeping or fear, no hunger or hatred. What did God know of all that people had been forced to endure in this world? For God leads a pretty sheltered life, they said.

So each of these groups sent forth their leader, chosen because he or she had suffered the most. A Jew, a black, a person from Hiroshima, a horribly deformed arthritic, a thalidomide child. In the centre of the plain they consulted with each other. At last they were ready to present their case. It was rather clever.

Before God could be qualified to be their judge, he must endure what they had endured. Their decision was that God should be sentenced to live on earth – as a man! “Let him be born a Jew. Let the legitimacy of his birth be doubted. Give him a work so difficult that even his family will think him out of his mind when he tries to do it. Let him be betrayed by his closest friends. Let him face false charges. Let him be tried by a prejudiced jury and convicted by a cowardly judge. Let him be tortured. At the last, let him see what it means to be horribly alone. Then let him die. Let him die so that there can be no doubt that he died. Let there be a great host of witnesses to verify it”.

As each leader announced their portion of the sentence, loud murmurs of approval went up from the throng of people assembled. But when the last had finished pronouncing sentence, there was a long silence. No one uttered another word. For suddenly all knew that God had already served his sentence.

The writer to the Hebrews says ‘For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathise with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need’ (Hebrews 4:15-16).

We began with the story of a dreadful hanging in a concentration camp, and the question of an anonymous spectator, “Where is God now?” But I didn’t finish the story. Elie Wiesel recounts how, when he heard that question, he heard a voice within him answering “Where is he? Here he is – he is hanging here on this gallows”. And when we ourselves suffer, it is the weakness and scars of Jesus that strengthen us, because they tell us of a God who suffers with us.

In his book The Cross of Christ, John Stott says,

I could never myself believe in God, if it were not for the cross. The only God I believe in is the one Nietzsche ridiculed as ‘God on the cross’. In the real world of pain, how could one worship a God who was immune to it? I have entered many Buddhist temples in Asian countries and stood respectfully before the statue of the Buddha, his legs crossed, arms folded, eyes closed, the ghost of a smile playing around his mouth, a remote look on his face, detached from the agonies of the world. But each time after a while I have had to turn away. And in imagination I have turned instead to that lonely, twisted, tortured figure on the cross, nails through hands and feet, back lacerated, limbs wrenched, brow bleeding from thorn-pricks, mouth dry and intolerably thirsty, plunged in God-forsaken darkness. That is the the God for me! He laid aside his immunity to pain. He entered our world of flesh and blood, tears and death. He suffered for us. Our sufferings become more manageable in the light of his. There is still a question mark over human suffering, but over it we boldly stamp another mark, the cross which symbolizes divine suffering. The cross of Christ is God’s only self-justification in such a world as ours.

I wonder if you know this poem by Edward Shillito? He was a pastor in England during the First World War, and he was haunted by the sufferings of the hundreds of thousands of wounded soldiers returning to England with shattered bodies and, in many cases, severely traumatized minds. But he found comfort in the thought that the risen Jesus was still able to show his disciples the scars of his crucifixion. It inspired him to write his poem ‘Jesus of the Scars’. Here it is:

If we have never sought, we seek thee now;
Thine eyes burn though the dark, our only stars;
We must have sight of thorn-marks on thy brow,
We must have thee, O Jesus of the scars.

The heavens frighten us; they are too calm;
In all the universe we have no place.
Our wounds are hurting us; where is the balm?
Lord Jesus, by thy scars we know thy grace.

If, when the doors are shut, thou drawest near,
Only reveal those hands, that side of thine;
We know today what wounds are, have no fear;
Show us thy scars, we know the countersign.

The other gods were strong, but thou wast weak;
They rode, but thou didst stumble to a throne;
But to our wounds only God’s wounds can speak,
And not a god has wounds, but thou alone.

Note: I received a more than usual amount of help with this sermon from John Stott’s excellent book The Cross of Christ.